Saturday, April 3, 2010

Solve for Easter

Unlike Christmas, Easter is a much harder sell for those who aren't active participants in Christianity. Christmas, having borrowed liberally from the midwinter Yule traditions that preceded it, has the biggest tent of any holy day celebrated in the West, suspended from poles of brotherhood, generosity, fellowship, and gratitude. If you are a non-Christian adult who doesn't enjoy rabbit shaped confections, there isn't nearly as much appeal for this spring celebration that can't even be bothered to fix a regular date and which can vacillate between March 23rd and April 25th. I still think it has something to offer everyone, however.

Tomorrow, our minister will be asking the congregation "What does Easter mean to you?" during his reflection, and wanted a ringer or two in the audience to know beforehand so there isn't any 'dead air' while everyone waits for someone else to go first or what have you. And while I appreciate the heads up and I am happy to help, I think maybe Easter is one of those things I have taken for granted. There are fewer of these things than there used to be, but still more than I'd like, and one of them is that question. What the heck does Easter mean to me?

I've always thought of Easter as an observance of the political figure of Jesus, as opposed to the mythical one we commemorate at Christmas. (Never forget how many of the early Christians were Greeks, who knew a thing or two about how to observe the birth of a demi-god!) And while Baby Jesus, like all babies, is all about unlimited potential and the end of a long wait, Easter Jesus is even more admirable, at least to me.

Stepping away from the baggage that comes with being the Son of God (whatever that might mean), Jesus is without peer when it comes to being an agent of change. Consider:
* Jesus preached personal humility, going so far as to wash the feet of those who called him "Lord", unheard of in his day;
* He refused temporal power although he had more than enough of a following to galvanize a rebellion against Rome;
* He spoke truth to power;
* He took to task those who revelled in positions of spiritual authority but did not have the moral authority to back it up;
* He spoke up for the poor and the marginalized almost two millennia before it became cool to do so;
* He preached compassion and understanding instead of strict adherence to religious law (i.e. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone");
* He was canny enough to outwit those who sought to use religious law to portray him as a heretic.

A great example of the last one is the story in which the pharisees figure they have Jesus caught by asking him if it is God's will to pay tax to the Romans: if he says yes, that is clearly heresy, but if he says no, he is practically supporting insurrection! Pharisees FTW! But when they ask him this in the temple, Jesus' response is to ask them to produce a coin, which they do. When he asks them whose face is on it, the jig is up, because it is against Jewish law to have graven (i.e. engraved) images in the temple, which they have just done. At this point, the famous response of "Render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar's, and unto God those things that are God's," is almost denouement, although it is still a really clever answer.

In the end though, Easter is about the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in all honesty, I think it is the death which is most important. In Norman Jewison's film version of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, the political elements I mentioned earlier are given full rein in the telling of the Easter story, both Pilate and Judas are portrayed sympathetically, and the movie ends with the crucifixion of Christ, and not the resurrection. This caused a lot of controversy in 1973, but growing up with the film has really made me wonder about which part is really the more important, and I have to go with the death. In fact, dramatically, the resurrection almost undermines the story and diminishes the sacrifice.

A few years back, I had the opportunity to be in Toronto for Easter, and went back to Wesley Mimico United Church to participate in the Easter cantata as one of the disciples. (I surprised a couple of friends when I showed up backstage as they had no idea I was in town, and when one of them grinned and said, "Oh my Lord!", I said, "No, no, I'm just one of the twelve...") It was a good production given the limits they had to work with, but I was really unprepared for the emotional impact it had on me. Jesus was played by a fellow named Joel who had come to Wesley Mimico after we had moved back to Edmonton, a black man of around 30, with fine features and a brilliant smile. One of my pet peeves is how Jesus is so often portrayed as not only handsome but also Caucasian, so this was great casting as far as I was concerned. When we reached the part of the production where Jesus is crucified, Joel lay down on the cross, which was below my sight line, but which I had noted earlier had a foot rest for Joel to stand on as well as pegs to rest his arms upon.

But when I saw the hammer lift and then fall, and heard the harsh sound of metal on metal, I jumped. And when I heard it a second time, it shook me up a little more. When the third blow struck, I heard a ragged inhalation of air from the audience behind me that meant someone had started sobbing, and my eyes filled immediately. Even now, recalling it half a decade later, I feel myself welling up. And why? I knew then and know now that Joel wasn't hurt, and it's not as though I don't know how the Easter story ends, but the story has been told so many times and become so sanitized that the visceral impact of crucifixion has been lost upon us, which is a shame in a lot of ways.

In the end, the Easter story needs to be about two things, and the first is courage. The courage to do what is right, even in the face of terrible consequences. The courage to not deny who you are, what you stand for or who you befriend. The courage to stand alone when abandoned by not only the crowds which had supported you mere hours before, but your own students and confidants. The courage to go willingly to one of the most cruel forms of execution ever devised by man, despite having committed no crime, in order that your message might live on.

Easter also needs to be about love. Jesus preached love and compassion and understanding as a new way of looking at the world that frightened those in power, and he ended up being killed for it. Imperial Rome is now one with the dust, while Jesus' message lives on two millennia later, despite its periodic co-opting by those who don't seem to fully grasp it. For instance, I still have a hard time understanding how preventing two people of the same gender from getting married is consistent with the teachings of Jesus, but I hope these people will come around. After all, there used to be a lot of good church-goin' folk who thought white churches were no place for black Christians, as offensive as that idea might be to us today. As superior as such people might make me feel, it doesn't change the fact that there are a lot of things I could do better in my own life, which is the real point of the message. Let he who is without sin get out of his glass house before casting stones, right?

On Friday, Rev. James said he got an insight into the death of Jesus at, of all places, Monday's Muse concert. Like a lot of people, James says he has wrestled with the meaning and significance of the death of Jesus for most of his life, but a part of it became clearer to him upon hearing these lyrics:
"If you could flick a switch and open your third eye/ You'd see that we should never be afraid to die."

Love, backed up by courage, is the most powerful force in the universe.

Love is stronger than hate. It's stronger than oppression. Love is impossible to suppress. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this. So did Gandhi. When James asks me tomorrow what Easter means to me, I will say something along the lines of how grateful I am that Jesus was willing to die to teach us that lesson, and how much more there is for us to learn from it, believer and non-believer alike. In a world determined to turn us against each other, Christian versus Muslim, rich versus poor, capitalist versus socialist, liberal versus conservative, Marvel versus DC, Mac versus PC, or what have you, love stands the best chance of saving us as a species.

Love is our resistance.

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